How Should Employers Prioritize Employee Stress and Mental Health?
Dr. Jeanine Joy
Employee stress and mental health touch every area of your business. Your employee’s mental health is reflected in productivity, morale, absenteeism, turnover, engagement, burnout, customer satisfaction, teamwork, employee complaints, and incivility.
Nearly every mental illness begins when an individual’s coping skills are inadequate to handle the level of chronic stress experienced. An Aon Hewitt survey recently reported that 54 percent of employees say high levels of stress. Nearly 18 percent of the adult population in the United States experienced a mental illness in the past 12 months.
Two significant advances in the science of human thriving – the science of helping humans flourish in spite of adversity – make it possible for employers to address the mental health crisis. We know more than ever about optimizing the mind to increase our ability to fulfill our potential and maintain good mental health. Until very recently, the continuum of strategies for coping with stress stopped at adaptive coping strategies.
Recent advances expanded the spectrum of coping skills to include Advanced and Transformational Strategies. Brief descriptions below highlight the importance of this shift.
- Dysfunctional Coping: Makes the situation worse, fast
- Maladaptive Coping: Increases stress, allows problem to fester, situation gets worse slowly
- Palliative Coping: Decreases stress temporarily but does not solve the problem
- Adaptive Coping: Changes the situation in ways that reduce stress
- Advanced Coping: Quickly reduces stress using metacognition and critical thinking
- Transformational Coping: Permanently reduces stress experienced every day
Unhealthy habits of thought lead to suboptimal outcomes. Patterns of thought affect success in every area of life including relationships, physical well-being, mental and behavioral health, and academic and career success. Healthy habits of thought optimize outcomes in every area of life. Training employees on how to change patterns of thinking provide them the opportunity to make healthy choices.
The second and perhaps most crucial advancement is re-defining of the purpose and use of emotions. The old paradigm about feelings (the way most people interpret the meaning of their feelings) leads to worse outcomes than when individuals apply the new, scientifically validated definition. This new definition helps them frame emotions as a sense designed to guide behavior. Positive emotions point us toward self-actualization while negative emotions indicate we are stressed and should use advanced strategies to feel better.
Emotions are divided into seven “zones” based on how empowered or disempowered a person experiencing that emotion feels. The chart below indicates the level of stress, empowerment, mental health, physical health, relationship health; as well as success in career, academics, and sports associated with chronically being in each zone.
The goal is not to always be in the Sweet Zone. The goal is to experience emotional states with less stress more often. Advanced and Transformative strategies reinforce hope, which helps people get out and stay out of the Powerless Zone faster. The Powerless Zone can’t hold a person who knows they have skills that will help them feel better.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers durability as far as relapses for the same event, especially when compared to other methods such as drugs. However, it tends to be situation specific. In other words, if the reason therapy was sought was a job loss or an unexpected death, the individual may end up in therapy again if a different stressful life event, such as a divorce, occurs. When compared to CBT, Advanced and Transformative Strategies are a better solution for preventing mental illnesses from developing and have successfully provided relief from chronic depression and PTSD when applied with the new definition of the purpose of emotions.
CBT should be available for individuals suffering from mental illnesses. However, for primary prevention – and employees who won’t seek traditional methods of treatment – Advanced and Transformational strategies reduce the risk of mental illness, speed recovery, and develop a positive work environment.
The way a person handles stress can multiply, add to, subtract from, or divide the level of stress experienced. Individuals can consciously control this process with Advanced and Transformational Strategies.
Teaching employees the new definition of the purpose of emotions and Advanced and Transformative coping strategies benefits from intrinsic motivation because positive emotional feedback reinforces each step. The teacher does not have to know the student’s unique situation. The student decides what to change and when to change. Even when the overall emotional state is still negative, the student feels the relief of feeling better and the hope that comes from knowing one is learning skills to shift to increasingly better feeling emotional states.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is hampered by:
- Stigma that prevents many people from seeking help
- The cost of one-on-one therapy
- Not avoiding future issues
- Being reactive instead of proactive
Advanced and Transformative strategies are proactive, low-cost, and designed to help individuals achieve and sustain emotions in the +8 to 10 range (from hope to joy). Because it is educational and structured to correct prevalent misconceptions, no stigma is attached to learning about the new definition of emotions or developing Advanced and Transformational coping skills. It is a low-cost, evidence-based pro-active method of prevention.
Training comes with added benefits for employers and employees. Employers benefit because it improves morale, reduces burnout, reduces daily stress, enhances existing wellness programs, and reduces biases. Employees benefit because they experience less stress, more success, and better relationships in every aspect of their life.
Advanced and Transformative strategies help employees develop healthy habits of thought including by applying belief change, metacognition, and critical thinking skills that enhance emotional intelligence, build resilience, improve employee engagement, and reduce burnout and the development of joint mental illnesses. Given the bleak status of mental health in the United States, these advances come just in time.
Over 50% of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout
- 75% of employees say obstacles to receiving treatment for mental illness
- “The state prevalence of untreated adults with mental illness ranges from 43.1% in Vermont to 67.5% in Nevada.”
- Chronic stress increases the pain from chronic conditions which can increase the need to treat it with drugs.
- Drug and alcohol abuse frequently begin as a dysfunctional attempt to cope with stress.
- 3,000 counties in the United States have inadequate mental health resources to meet the demand. Nearly every county (96%) has insufficient resources to meet the mental health needs of residents.
Employers that want to be part of the solution and reap the business benefits of lowering employee stress now have an evidence-based option that is cost-effective.
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 (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017)
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